The End of a Journey: Colorado Wolverine Killed in North Dakota

A couple of weeks ago, a wolverine was killed in North Dakota by a ranch hand who came across it, surrounded by cattle. He believed that the animal was a threat to his calves, even though he wasn’t sure what it was, and shot it. The North Dakota Department of Game and Fish confirmed the ID and took possession of the body for a necropsy and DNA testing. Articles about the incident, and the animal’s possible origins, have popped up over the past week, and I was in the process of writing a post about this incident, and how interested I was in the results of the DNA testing and the origins of this wolverine, when NDG&F released an update containing surprising news: the wolverine was carrying a radio transmitter. That transmitter belonged to an animal instrumented in Wyoming in 2008, and whose “last known location was Colorado in 2012.”

This leaves little doubt that the animal was M56, the wolverine who gained fame in 2009 when he traveled 500 miles from northern Wyoming to Colorado. He became the first verified wolverine in Colorado in 90 years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife tracked him until his instruments died, as he traveled up and down the length of the Colorado Rockies. He was spotted and photographed by hikers on several occasions, and prompted widespread interest in the idea of reintroducing wolverines to Colorado. I cannot enumerate the emails I’ve gotten from elementary school classes across the country wanting to know more about M56, where he is now, and what he’s doing. In fact, I answered such an email this morning, to a third grade class in Ohio, sending along cheerful speculations about how he was probably still alive and wandering around the Rockies. He was a genuinely famous wolverine, people were inspired by his story, and I’m caught between astonishment that he had gone all the way to North Dakota – North Dakota! – and sadness at his end.

I tracked this guy shortly after he was caught and instrumented, off Togwotee Pass in Wyoming, in early 2009. Once I took my sister, who was in town for a visit, and once I went by myself. I didn’t find his tracks, and the days were still too short for extensive trips, but I could hear him on the telemetry receiver, the slow, steady, tick….tick of the transmitter both soothing and exhilarating in the snowbound forest. I had no idea what he would go on to do, but I loved him even then simply for being out there, for his presence on the landscape, which, even before his tremendous journeys, seemed huge.

We lost track of him for a while, and then he was picked up traveling south down the spine of the Wind River Range in central Wyoming. We thought he’d stick there, but then he disappeared again. At that point, we began speculating – what if he kept going south, to Colorado? The speculation was half-joking, half hopeful. It picked up steam and tipped towards hopeful when he was spotted outside of Laramie by a rancher who saw him and called Game and Fish to report it. A flight ID-ed him. I remember thinking that I sort of loved that rancher, too, for calling the animal in, for being an ally of science and understanding and coexistence. His decision kept the story alive.

M56 crossed into Colorado in May of 2009. His journey coincided with the start of my work in Mongolia, and those two events catalyzed the founding of this blog. He made it clear that these animals had stories unlike the stories of other animals, at a scale that corresponded to my own interests. M56 made me realize that there was something to write about here, a compelling narrative, and his was the first story that I told.

I have an aversion to letting my emotions get the better of me, but it’s hard not to admit to grief over M56’s end. It’s extraordinary that he went from Wyoming to Colorado to (probably, since he was so close to the border) Montana to North Dakota – and who knows where else in between? Unknown animals die unmourned all the time, so it shouldn’t matter. But storied wolverines…they are rare, and they hint to us of all the wild and unseen and amazing lives that go on beyond our awareness. That’s something worth thinking about. So take a moment to remember M56, to consider his life, and those unknown lives, and what it means to have them out there. It means more than I can express, probably more than any of us can express – but let us keep trying.

 

 

 

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Wolverine Decision Ruled “Arbitrary and Capricious”

Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling today finding the USFWS 2014 decision to withdraw the proposed wolverine listing rule “arbitrary and capricious.” His ruling vacates the decision and remands it to the USFWS. This means that the decision not to list is overturned, and the federal government must reconsider the science and issue a new decision. The court ruling does not require the USFWS to grant wolverines protected status under the Endangered Species Act, but it does find that the USFWS discounted the best available science and applied unnecessarily stringent standards of scientific certainty and precision in reaching the decision not to list.

I’ll get into some analysis in a future post. This decision came out fast, months ahead of what I anticipated, and so I haven’t even had a chance to publish the posts I was working on about the original scientific arguments for and against listing – so I have some catching up to do. In the meantime, the gist of the 85-page decision is summarized in Judge Christensen’s conclusion, for which I think he deserves a heartfelt thanks from future generations of wildlife enthusiasts who might value the opportunity to see wolverines and other climate-sensitive wildlife in the Rockies:

The Service erred when it determined: (1) that climate change and projected
spring snow cover would not impact the wolverine at the reproductive denning
scale in the foreseeable future, and (2) that small population size and low genetic
diversity do not pose an independent threat to wolverine viability in the United
States. By incorporating these determinations into the Withdrawal, the Service’s
decision against listing the wolverine as threatened under the ESA is arbitrary and
capricious. No greater level of certainty is needed to see the writing on the wall
for this snow-dependent species standing squarely in the path of global climate
change. It has taken us twenty years to get to this point. It is the undersigned’s
view that if there is one thing required of the Service under the ESA, it is to take
action at the earliest possible, defensible point in time to protect against the loss of
biodiversity within our reach as a nation. For the wolverine, that time is now.

The document is worth reading in its entirety, so I’m posting it here in .pdf format: Wolverine Ruling 2016.

The decision is detailed, but very readable, and contains a number of statements that made me exclaim out loud and sit up straighter – if you want a concise but thorough understanding of what was going on over the course of the writing of the proposed rule, the evaluation of the science, and the reversal, this is good reading. And those 85 pages are double spaced, so it goes pretty quickly. Enjoy!

Mongolian Wolverines at the Backcountry Film Festival

Earlier this fall, I helped Forrest McCarthy, one of the biologists on the Mongolian ski expedition in April, put together a short film for the 2013-2014 Backcountry Film Festival. This film festival is run by Winter Wildlands Alliance, and celebrates human-powered winter recreation (or, as I think of it, people getting in touch with their inner wolverine.) The film was accepted, and will be touring the country, from Alaska to Vermont, with opening night at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, Idaho, on November 1st. Tickets are $10. Details are available at the festival’s website. So is a trailer that features clips from our film – viewers will be able to tell, instantly, which clips are ours, since they’re the only ones featuring yaks. This is the first festival film that I’ve been involved with, so I’m pretty excited!

Forrest is a well-known guide, an advocate for human-powered winter sports and for wilderness, who has a long history with wolverine research; he worked with the WCS project when it was running fieldwork in the Tetons, and has orchestrated several citizen science projects since then. He maintains a great blog about his backcountry adventures, and has made a number of films, including a previous short film compiling video from our trip. His presence on the ski trip was a tremendous asset, and Mongolia clearly worked its magic on him, as his ongoing interest in the Darhad demonstrates. All of the filming and the editing are his work; I adapted a script that he wrote, and I narrated, since the script contains Mongolian terms, and Mongolian is a language that will tie the tongue of anyone who hasn’t lived there for a few years. The focus is on the sense of restlessness and the big quest that drives those of us who go out looking for wolverines, rather than on the details of the science (I’m saving that for another film…..and several upcoming papers.) So check the calendar, and show up prepared for big adventure in search of wolverines.

For Montanans who just can’t wait for two days to indulge a thirst for wolverines onscreen, Montana PBS will be airing Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom tonight at 7 pm – always good for a little inspiration as the winter weather sets in and we head into ski season.